Dark, disturbing ‘Alice Lost in Wonderland’ is remarkable

New Beth Marshall production transforms both the original text and the Garden Theatre

Alice Lost in Wonderland

through Nov. 3 | Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden | 407-877-4736 | gardentheatre.org | $15-$25

Since its 1865 publication, Lewis Carroll’s pharmaceutically inspired classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been reimagined into every medium and genre imaginable – stately BBC series, hyperviolent video games, second-rate Disney cartoon and 3-D Tim Burton travesty. But Alice Lost in Wonderland, an original world premiere from producer Beth Marshall and writer-director Rob Winn Anderson, has worked a remarkable transformation on not only the iconic fantasy, but on the landmark venue where it’s landed. This dark, disturbing vision has handed a “Drink Me” bottle to Winter Garden’s gorgeous Garden Theatre (normally home to handsome but unchallenging family-friendly fare like The Wizard of Oz) and helped it grow up a bit.

“Jane Doe” (an exceptional Becky Eck) is a nameless, homeless mental patient whose uncontrollable outbursts have landed her in the “last-resort resort,” a 1950s-era asylum whose uncompromising administrator, Dr. Barb (Meaghan Fenner), doles out lobotomies like lollipops and makes Nurse Ratched look like Florence Nightingale. Jane’s only option for avoiding her scheduled appointment with the ice pick is to tumble down the rabbit hole pursuing her missing memories of childhood trauma, as embodied by her lost “little sister,” Alice (Taylor Anderson). Along her journey, she re-enacts familiar episodes from Carroll’s adventure, her fellow patients – each of whom suffers from their own psychological jabberwocky – assuming the story’s secondary roles: a surgery addict (Julie Snyder) becomes the Crumpet Strumpet; the straitjacketed self-injurer is an extravagantly animated Mad Hatter (Wesley Slade); the multiple personalities of Louis (Mike Deaven) manifest as Tweedles Dum and Dee and a multitude of gardeners; and poet Tod Caviness portrays the caterpillar as an OCD ex-smoker turned hookah-huffing hippie. Jane’s only allies are the meek Mouse (Erik Nelson), who may be her White Knight in hiding; and sympathetic orderly Mr. Gwynn (Alexander Mrazek), who stands in for the White Rabbit – but even their assistance may not be enough to help Jane and Alice avoid losing their heads at the Queen’s command.

This debut production has several strengths, starting with some stellar performances, from Eck’s virtuoso vulnerability (in the talkback, she called this “one of the most challenging roles [she’s] ever played”) down to 12-year-old Nicholas Bethencourt Neto’s empathetic portrait of a hunchbacked turtle. The quality cast is supported by striking technical elements, including Tom Mangieri’s monumental steampunk set design, Amy Hadley’s carnival-colored lighting, Bill Warriner’s dynamic fight direction, Molly Walz’s dapper goth costumes and John Valines’ seat-shaking soundscape.

As a playwright, Anderson does an admirable job of emulating Dodgsonian doublespeak, making it difficult to distinguish his dense doggerel from excerpts of the original, and the psychiatric subject matter (exhaustively researched by dramaturge Brenna Nicely) is a smart match for Carroll’s surreal scenarios. The show’s start is arresting, with dreamlike direction that borders on modern dance, and Anderson makes efficient use throughout of hidden surprises in his unitary set.

Unfortunately, momentum sags after the opening as the framing story – which recalls Sucker Punch without the sex or swords – is extensively established before Jane discovers Wonderland; many scenes drag along and end episodically with little organic connection to the next incident. (Understandable, since every adaptation – including Walt’s – faces the same struggle with the disjointed source material.) Act One is overlong with an arbitrarily located intermission, while the second half has tonal balance issues, awkwardly veering from intense tragedy to slapstick silliness too abruptly for me to adequately experience either emotion.

Marshall and Anderson began working on this show from scratch barely six months ago; the initial draft was written in about two weeks, and the 25th rewrite was handed to the actors only days before technical rehearsals. That’s impressively fast, but I feel the script would benefit from a little more baking, or at least a sharp scalpel. Even so, this is ambitious work with enormous potential, and I hope it encourages the Garden Theatre to continue offering edgier options worth the drive from Orlando.

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